Since making the financial and mental commitment to race in 2021, Marathon des Sables has been taking up much of my time and energy, constantly on my mind and driving me to become rather one track in my conversations. It’s terrifying and exciting, but I have become more and more committed to doing it now, fully set on achieving my goal to complete the 250km race across the desert. It’s quite surprising that given the growing popularity of the MdS and stage races in general, there is very little in the way of training plans out there but after much searching I did eventually find one that seemed appropriate. My idea was to follow that, adding in some other techniques and ideas to make it fit to my own circumstances, and then when appropriate, work with a coach to create the perfect training plan for me. This officially started 24 weeks before the start day of the race.
As I really had no idea what a training plan for ultra plus distance should look like, I have been sucking up knowledge like a sponge, and one of the big pointers I see talked about a lot is “train to walk as much as you train to run”. The premise being that most people in longer races, and especially stage races across difficult terrain, will spend as much time walking as running, and so learning to walk fast and strong over long distances is as important as running. For me coming from a marathon/Ironman background, this seemed hard to grasp, and being the pompous ass I have the habit to be (yep that A type personality again), I kind of dismissed it in my mind as something to “nod my head at” rather than devise my weekly plans around.
However that all changed when to my absolute horror, my Achilles decided to play up again while doing a short jog around Hyde Park last week. This was my worst nightmare, after 18 months of slowly rehabilitating my Achilles tendinitis, it flared up again within the first few weeks of serious training. The depression was as real as could get, and after I hobbled back to the hotel I stared at the excel spread sheets blinking back at me from my computer, the weekly mileage now seeming impossible, the realization that my whole dream, my big adventure was gone before it had even begun.
Aha, I hear you cry, then this blog is done for, and we will go back to the “once every 6 months” update that we have come to expect (dread?). Well not quite… because as I sat on the train heading down to my ancestral home of Salisbury, it struck me, as the MdS really doesn’t have to be about running, that maybe if I focused on the walking, I could train to complete without undue stress on my Achilles (it doesn’t hurt at all to walk). Suddenly things didn’t seem so bad after all.
I had previously read a really interesting article by Ian Corless (a very well-known figure in the MdS world) about what he calls the 5+2 technique, which basically states that you train for and potentially race by walking 5km and then running 2. The idea being you keep a pace of around 9 minutes per km walking, then run at a 6minutes pace to achieve a total of about 7km an hour. This seems very slow for us marathon types out there, but when broken down would give a very respectable result in the longer races, which with less than 30% of the time running would help mitigate the injures and stress that pure run training/racing long distances would generally bring (apparently the gold standard for ultras is completing 100km in under 24 hours, which I imagine is similar to the 4hr marathon. Nothing to write home about but a good figure for the vast majority to aim for. This plan would achieve that).
This then became my plan, Cinderella would go to the ball, but instead of going in a glorious dress made of long distancing running, I would go in a slightly less glamourous but ultimately more practical robe made from focused walking with just a small delicate inlay of limited easy running.
It should be stated here that walking 5km at a pace of 9 minutes per km is actually not that easy, something I quickly learned on my first few attempts across the beautiful hills of Salisbury Plain (which start less then a 2 minute walk from my front door, a massive change to what I need to do in Tokyo to go “off road”). Initially, by pushing hard, I was hitting a pace of over 12minute per km. I knew this wasn’t good enough but no matter how hard I tried the best I could do was dip just into the 11 minute range. Luckily I belong to a great forum of likeminded MdS aspirants, which is “headed” by the man himself, Ian Corless. I put out a question and was told the thing to focus on wasn’t long hard strides as I had been doing, but rather counter intuitively, short punchy strides, swinging the arms like I am holding poles (which were also highly recommended). Sounded easy enough so I headed out the door to try.
Well, it wasn’t a straight forward as I thought, I did manage to get my pace down to 10 something minutes per km over the first 5km, however I just could not get into the 9 min range. I gave myself the excuse it was due to me being overweight and inexperienced and decided to turn around and head back for the final 5km. I was keeping things steady but then as I hit the 8th km mark, I saw a woman walking next to me on a parallel path whom, in my rather ridiculous macho way, I expected to pass. However much to my surprise I soon realised that she was in fact walking faster than me, so I took the opportunity to study her form and noticed she was really punching the air, swinging her arms upwards, and her walk was almost mincing – if you could call power walking mincing. I mimicked what I saw and was instantly transported to the holy land of sub 10 min km! YES!!!! I had done it, I had learnt a new technique by dropping all my preconceptions (and type A personality pride) and now I knew I could start to believe again that I could participate and complete the MdS… even if it means I would be walking across the desert like a drag queen on speed, hips swaying and arms punching my way to glory.
Now I have a plan. I will take running even easier than the 5+2 plan for a few weeks to allow my Achilles more recovery time, but I fully intend to get out and walk at least 5 days a week, focusing on sub 10 min pace, with pack and poles, which will make me an interesting spectacle around the streets of Tokyo. Once my ankle feels good enough, I will cautiously add in some running to bring me up to the “5+2”, then if that all goes well start adding some longer runs in too.
So there we have it, I almost screwed up before I began, but all’s well that ends well and fingers crossed I can move forward as planned and keep training towards my goal.